Greg Nickels was a largely unknowable mayor, owing to his public shyness and his impatience with the hear-me-out clamorings of the Seattle voters. We hardly knew what we had, or what we rejected. Instead, we had some not-altogether-untrue stock images of the man. A bully to his opponents. A stubborn, impatient, do-the-right-thing politician in Nickels' own self-fashioning farewell address. An ordinary nice guy to those close to him.
Several things brought him to his ignominious exit last week, coming in third in a primary. He just didn't get the mingling thing, that ability (best exhibited by former Mayor Norm Rice) to really enjoy being among the citizens, listening to their concerns and suggestions with genuine interest. (Former Mayor Paul Schell had something of the same problem.) He only knew government, and so he felt uneasy in settings outside government or drawing wisdom from folks who live outside City Hall or the County Courthouse. (Speaker Frank Chopp has the same problem.)
He was a power-broker, rather than a man with a compelling overall vision for where the city ought to be going. ("Stronger, better, kinder," he said in his concession speech.) And that meant he presided over the Age of Cranes, a time when developers called the tune, filled the city coffers, and swept the law firms and boosters into their magnetic field. Nor was he articulate or candid or self-confident enough to offer a strong public rationale for his era, when fortunes were being made, the population was being gentrified, and government was getting over-weight.
So Nickels gave off the sense of a man without core convictions, a servicer of the powerful (labor, U.W., police and fire guilds, developers, transit consultants, organized environmentalists). In two cases, however, I think he got genuine religion. One was the set of issues around climate change, once Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation had converted him to the cause and shown him its great political advantages. The other was the waterfront, where (wholly to his credit), Nickels really did set out to get that Viaduct torn down and replaced with a park. (Maybe.)
As for light rail, Nickels mostly presided over the awkward start of Sound Tranist (with runaway spending) and the ribbon-cutting end of it, and I fault him for not insisting that Sound Transit have stations that work well by focusing density and intercepting commuters. He worked behind the scenes on schools, helping bring about the dramatic improvement of the Seattle School Board; but by then he was so unpopular and thought to be an empire builder, that he had to hide his (quite intelligent) involvement in recruiting a reform slate. (And very little reform, so far.)
On many other issues, there was a lot of drift. Our parks are not safe, nor are downtown streets. Plans for revitalizing Seattle Center are stalled, after the Mayor squeezed out Virginia Anderson, one of the many strong carry-over department heads who made Nickels uncomfortable and the person who got the Gates Foundation to locate just east of the Center. The SLUT streetcar missed a chance, as Nickels lamented in his concession remarks, of turning Westlake into a real boulevard. He feuded bitterly with Mic Dinsmore of the Port, and his poor relations with County Executive Sims, Speaker Chopp, and Gov. Gregoire greatly slowed down decisions on the Viaduct, 520 (still a stalemate), money for regional highways, transit equity, and any movement toward more rational regional governance. The growing bitterness in the neighborhoods, afflicted with soulless apartment buildings and a singles-tilted new population, is partly because the Mayor was far too trusting of developers, far too impatient with the hand-wringing from the neighbors.
I once had a conversation with the Mayor during which he explained to me his firecracker theory of governance. He said he would look at a situation where the two sides were locked in a typically endless Seattle debate, such as how to develop the area south of Northgate or whether to take out some trees from Occidental Park. He didn't want to appoint new stakeholder committees and spend another three years in seeking consensus and just getting more polarization. So he would stick a firecracker into the mess, blow it up, and then try to put the pieces together in a better way, now that the old stances were incinerated.
How'd that work out? Some trees came out of Occidental Park after a group of New York consultants came in and insulted everyone, but I'm not sure that sweetness and light are the result. For Northgate, the City Council had to come riding to the rescue of the neighborhood. On the Evergreen Point bridge, the Mayor has refused to take much of a stand (the neighborhoods are split), sticking the state legislators with the mess. It's a management style that leaves a lot of bruised feelings, and a lot of wondering about what Nickels himself really wants.
One of the tragedies of politics is that the quite attractive person we elect gradually gets turned into something artificial. I remember my first interview of Nickels (who has run for mayor four times now, and probably will again), in which he talked about walking on a school playground in West Seattle and feeling sharp rocks pushing through his soles. He wanted to fix the city at that level. And he was just what Seattle had needed for decades — a working-class mayor from the rocky-playground side of the tracks. I felt that Greg Nickels again in his terrific concession speech, where he spoke from the heart (it has been a long time).
Paul Schell was unlucky in that the city took a big public fall on the global stage with the WTO riots, reminding us of our ambivalence at becoming globalized and "big league." Greg Nickels was unfortunate that his time in office was one of a rapid gentrification of the electorate. The city of Boeing became the suburb of Microsoft. That meant Nickels' natural agenda of fixing stony playgrounds became the unnatural agenda of rescuing Kyoto Accords and importing European streetcars for neighborhoods full of rootless "urban aspirationals." The political demographics overtook this son of a Boeing worker, handing him a sudden pink slip as if he were a WaMu lifer.
So he was dealt a difficult hand. A skilled politician, he drew together a coalition of strange bedfellows: labor, minorities, business, developers, government employees, and greens. It seemed invincible, which is why no strong candidates chose to run against him. But it was an awkward blend, like an Italian coalition government. Nickels had to keep up a false front, lest the rifts be revealed and one faction feel it was losing its promised place at the table. It produced mushy policy, and the Mayor seemed a prime minister, never a king. He had zero star-power (except nationally). I suspect that his lackluster last race was partly his subconscious side telling him to get out of the weirdly dysfunctional melange he had built.
And what does this new demographic reality want? Someone like Barack Obama: smart, contemporary, fresh, elite, in touch with nongovernmental worlds like investment banking and universities and the arts, "superior" to government, technocratic. In part, it's Joe Mallahan, coming out of the telecommunications world. (Note two top candidates for California senator and governor: Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard, and Meg Whitman, ex-CEO of eBay.) In part, it's Mike McGinn, leading a crusade to save the world from climate change, charged up with youthful insurgency.
What's missing is the old center of Seattle politics, middle class reform — moderately progressive, pro-business, bipartisan, and civil. That dropped out of Seattle politics about two decades ago, leaving a politician like Nickels to try to resurrect it without really being a part of that set, socially. It didn't come back together, largely because the local business community has become so globalized as to have abdicated from civic life. When the moment of truth came and Nickels needed them, they ran out the side door. As they say about politics, it almost always ends cruelly.